When your pint isn’t a pint

I recently read an item about pint sizes that got me thinking.

Adam McDowell, writing in August for the “booze newsletter” Moose Milk, which he cofounded with drinks writer Christine Sismondo, opined on the strict and seemingly seldom-observed definition of the word “pint.” As he noted in the article, the term “pint” has essentially been bastardized to the point where it now basically just means “a large glass.” In reality, of course, the pint has an actual exact measurement. In Canada, it’s 20oz.

McDowell’s premise was that bars advertising a pint are all too often not serving actual pints. You’re more likely, he posits, to get 18oz or 16oz. He also noted that bars and restaurants are actually legally required to serve correctly-sized pints. In a conversation on twitter that followed after I shared his article, McDowell also informed me that the Government of Canada has an official complaint mechanism to report measurement-related complaints like improper pints — which might be the most Government of Canada thing I’ve ever heard.

At first blush, this seems like the kind of thing I’d get my manties in a knot about, so I happily shared the item on social media: Getting shafted on beer? Shady advertising? Where’s my torch and pitchfork?!

But then recently I thought…is this actually an issue? How many bars actually advertise “pints?”

Very few, I’ve found in my highly unscientific research. Maybe it’s that I don’t often go to places that need to promote their wares based on volume, but almost every decent bar seems to indicate the size of the pour you’re getting alongside the price. So are people really ordering “a pint” then shitting themselves when they notice the glass they receive is actually 18oz? I don’t think so. And, realistically, if you’re ordering anything with a higher ABV than 5%, should you even really be getting 20oz servings?

Matt Bod, the Beer Program Manager at Toronto’s Bar Hop restaurants and bars, thinks the proper pint argument might all be a little silly.

“You are 100% entitled to get the volume of beer advertised for the advertised price,” he says. “You are not entitled to get an imperial pint based on your arbitrary opinion that an imperial pint is the ideal serving size.”

I have previously championed the idea of a “full size” drink as opposed to a tasting size — and I still loathe the miniature servings offered up at most beer festivals — but Bod makes a strong case for lil’ beers. “There are many people who prefer smaller pour sizes. I’m one of them. I generally don’t drink beer particularly quickly and the last 25% of an imperial pint is usually warm and flat by the time I get to it. I can assure you that this is not an uncommon opinion. I can’t really prove it to you though, because as far as I can tell,  people who feel the same way I do seem to spend their time doing things that don’t involve complaining about beer on the internet.”

As a semi-professional internet beer complainer myself, I can concede the point that some people might not in fact drink beer as quickly as I do.

The other issue seems to be that, while the beer-drinking public would like a Proper Pint, please, they/we seem to simultaneously lament the rising price of a glass of beer. In other words, it’s a bit hypocritical to bitch about the size of your drink out of one side of your mouth then complain about the bill when it arrives out of the other. 

Sure, you could probably get a Government-of-Canada-approved pint of a Russian Imperial Stout, but are you prepared to pay $11 or $12 for it? I think you probably aren’t. Bod concurs. “In my experience the vast majority of customers have no real attachment to the very English idea of a ‘proper pint’ that needs to be strictly regulated for the good of the consumer but, man oh man, they are definitely not happy when they have to pay more than $10 with tax & tip for a beer.”

There is also a compelling argument to made that bickering over the cost of the two ounces of beer you might be “missing” is a little tacky. I mean sure, if you walk into Crabby Joe’s and they’re advertising $5 pints of Rickard’s but you get an 18oz glass, you might reasonably complain. You probably just came in there for cheap shit and if the shit isn’t actually cheap, then it’s just…well, shit. So by all means mention it to your server to try to wheel some extra mozza sticks for you and the boys. But if you’re in a good bar, the money you’re putting toward that full-sized beverage is almost certainly being put to use to improve your drinking experience.

“Top tier beer bars invest considerable resources into cleaning every component of their draught system on strict, industry-standard schedules,” Bod says. “They invest in expensive equipment to serve draught beer in the condition the brewer intended. They have their glass washer serviced regularly to make sure your glass isn’t alternately filthy or stinking of chlorine. They don’t take keg deals and they don’t trade draught lines for umbrellas or Leafs tickets or vacations. The price of kegs and real estate has risen dramatically and if you think the second and third tier beer bars are doing all these things while selling you imperial pints for eight bucks then there is a bridge in Brooklyn I would be happy to sell you.”

So it seems to me that, for the most part, informed consumers are getting both what’s advertised and our money’s worth when we order a full-sized pour.

Sure, maybe it is isn’t really a “pint.”

But maybe that’s OK.

12 thoughts on “When your pint isn’t a pint

  1. A pint in the UK is 20 fluid ounces but here in Canada we follow our US cousins and serve a US pint which is 16 ounces. When I moved from the UK to Canada, it didn’t dawn on me why I drank ‘pints’ so quickly. It was because the glass was narrower and slightly shorter and only held 16oz, or if you were lucky, you got a pint marked 18oz glass. What does puzzle me is that when you ask for ‘a half’, you get a 12 ounce glass which isn’t ‘half’ of anything, but a lot better than getting 8oz of beer! Three sips and that would be gone :>)

    1. Get a Moosehead or Creemore or whatever big branded glass you can, then pour 20oz of water in it, you’ll see they are not 16oz.

  2. Andrew, that is not true. Canada official pint is 20oz, just like the UK. I have worked in 3 pubs in UK, and 4 in Toronto.

    Draught beers like Molson Canadian, Moosehead, Coors, Creemore exc. at a bar in Canada in its branded glasses are 200z. Craft beers however it’s more common in 18oz, 16oz, 14oz exc. Even in England today, with the rise of craft beer pubs, the popularity of smaller glasses at pubs with higher %ABV beers is on the rise.

    Just like Ben explained its actual illegal to serve a pint under 20oz in Canada if it is advertised as a pint. ISA official pint size is 16oz. However it is not illegal to simply sell a 16oz pint in Canada if it is not advertised as a pint. And who really is policing pint sizes?

    Cans however, often called tall cans in Canada, are usually smaller then what would be tall cans of beers in UK. Tall cans in UK are still a pint, Canada is smaller.

    1. Interesting. I concede to the rule of majority. All beer glass in pints and half pint in the UK are Government stamped to state the size and that they have been batch tested for accuracy. When I first came to Canada I drank Creemore which then was termed a craft beer, so perhaps they were using a smaller glass. I was in a bar on Sunday evening and had a pint of Creemore in their new branded glasses with the new and horrid logo. Those new glasses are a little shorter and very wide at the top, and would convince me that they hold a 20oz pint. Thanks for the answers.

      1. And after all that, I went and measured a few pint glasses. Creemore was NOT 20oz. Glass is misleading. However a Moosehead, Canadian, and Steamwhistle glass I measured were 20 oz. So Ben’s point is, do you care about every ounce? Can you even tell what size each glass is?

    2. Thanks for the explanation. I often have wondered about this sort of thing, and how here in the US the sizes are significantly different from brewery to brewery, and also from beertender to bartender, unfortunately.

      I find the article well written but I bristle at the suggestion that it is somehow just fine to advertise a size and no deliver. Tacky to complain? I wonder if I. took that same attitude at settle up time. Bill comes in at $16 bucks, but I take their approach and round that down to $13.25. That sure would be tacky of the pub to complain, right? 🙂

  3. This has always peeved me. Been drinking “craft beer” since the late 80s and when a pub served a “pint” it was a proper pint. Then just after Bellwoods opened, I was served a pint that was 16oz. i was visibly offended and not long after, they changed from saying “pint” to just being clearly 16oz. That’s fine sell me what you tell me you are serving. The main problem I noticed is that this reduction of what was traditionally a “pint” increased the prices. Now a 16oz sells for the same price of what used to be a 20oz.

  4. I travelled in Canada a few years ago and drank some truly excellent beers right across Canada from Toronto to Vancouver but i was quite confused by the inconsistency in what constituted a “pint”.
    In my experience a pint was anywhere from 14 ounces up to 22 so while some places were short changing me others were actually giving me more. The oddest thing about it though was that all of them specified how many ounces you were going to get in your “pint” so if they were ripping me off, at least they were being up front about it!!

    1. In English law, there is a law against that in the Liquor Licensing Act. It is called the ‘long pull law’. It goes from the time of the hand pumps. You have a 20oz pint glass and you drink 3/4 and give to to the barman and says, can I have a half (10ozs)? The barman fills it up, and you have had a long pull. When the police question you, you say, but I only had a pint and a half. It is to keep to exact measurements, 20oz or 10oz. Conversely, the landlord can cheat the customer, you won’t get a Bavarian pint with a huge head. Glasses are Government stamped to pint or half pint, either full to the brim, or filled to a line. There has always been discussion about whether the head is part of the pint. The law decreed it isn’t, it is only the liquid part.

      Liquor Licensee since 1975 :>)

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